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Column | Convocation Affirms Priestly Brotherhood

Bishop Bonnar


Bishop of Youngstown

The psalmist paints a beautiful image of unity in Psalm 133. “How good and how pleasant it is, when brothers’ dwell together as one. Like fine oil on the head, running down upon the beard of Aaron, upon the collar of his robe. Like dew of Hermon coming down upon the mountains of Zion. There the Lord has decreed a blessing, life for evermore!” (Psalms 133:1-3)

Through our baptism, we are all called to be one. In fact, that is Jesus’ great priestly prayer for all of us: “That all may be one.” (John 17:21) That very prayer of Jesus serves as my prayer and episcopal motto. Every day I pray “That all may be one.” This “all” of course includes the clergy, religious and faithful.

In a particular way, priests are called to model this unity with one another. Especially priests, who belong to a particular presbyterate, need to demonstrate oneness in spite of the years, distance, and ideas that may separate them.

Priests live out this oneness every day in their ministry, which is rooted in the mission of Jesus under the pastoral leadership of the bishop. This oneness is also expressed in their attendance at the Chrism Mass during Holy Week each year, when together they renew their priestly promises, and at the ordination of a priest, when they lay hands on the one to be ordained who is to become their brother.

In yet another “first,” if you will, for me as a bishop, I had a bird’s eye view of this oneness within the presbyterate of the Diocese of Youngstown at our most recent Priests’ Convocation at the Lodge at Geneva-on-the-Lake. Every two years the diocese sponsors a multi-day clergy gathering. This was the 15th such gathering convened by the bishop. In many ways, it is like being on the mountain for the Transfiguration. Like Peter, in these moments we cannot help but say: “Lord, it is good that we are here.” (Matthew 17:4) Indeed, it is so good that we can go away and rest awhile with one another. During a time of pandemic, marked with great isolation, coupled with the fact that so many of our priests live alone, it was so good to be together and enjoy one another’s company.

The source of this unity comes from one’s ordination to the priesthood, which is renewed every day at Holy Mass. How inspiring it was praying together at Holy Mass. It was in this sacred venue that we celebrated the major jubilees (from both 2020 and 2021) of several of our priests – giving thanks to Almighty God for their dedicated service. Celebrating their milestones offered an opportunity for each of us to renew our own call to serve the Lord with joy as a priest. We owe a debt of gratitude to these men, not only for their service, but also for their inspiring witness to all of us priests.

Speaking of witness, the presbyterate heard two very moving talks from two of our own. Father John Keehner spoke on “The Blessings and Challenges of Priesthood Today.” Father John Sheridan addressed “What It Means to be a Parish Priest Today.” Needless to say, it is hard being a priest today – particularly a parish priest, given the demands of ministry and changing face of the parish today. So many of our priests by necessity have multiple responsibilities and more than one flock. This was yet another reason why it was so good to be there.

We heard from David Shallenberger, CEO of the St. John Vianney Center, Downingtown, Pa., about the importance of resilience in these challenging times. Shallenberger, who is a nurse-therapist, also emphasized the importance of leading a balanced life with healthy relationships. In addition, he encouraged us to be men of hope.

In one of the sessions we heard from Dr. Linda Lee Ritzer, director of parish services of the Diocese of Pittsburgh, on the value of collaboration, especially as we forge ahead with the regional pastoral plan. There can be no lone rangers. We all need to work together for the good of the Church.

The theme for the convocation was “Forward Together.” We cannot afford to stand still or become nostalgic about our rich past. The front windshield is always bigger than the rear-view mirror. We need to move forward together in what will no doubt be a different sense of Church that will demand even more compromise, patience, understanding and flexibility. A declining pool of active and available priests, an excess of church buildings and the continual strain of the pandemic will likely call for tough decisions. Remember, our faith is not in a building but in Jesus Christ. That same faith always triumphs over fear. If we truly trust in God and place our faith in Jesus, what have we to fear? This is our moment!

During one of the evenings, we had some fun, thanks to Father John Jerek, who created a Trivial Pursuit game involving facts about our local Church, bishops (current and past), parishes, religious, etc. We were placed into eight different teams. It was so much fun. One of the questions in the category of “Miters and Crosiers” – that is, history of the six bishops – included one about me. The question – What is Bishop Bonnar’s mother’s maiden name? Our team got the question, interestingly enough, along with the five points, because I was probably the only one in the room who knew that her maiden name was “Wilson.” While we played on different teams that night, we all knew so well that we were one.

What really illustrated unity for me was the meals we shared. There was very little “eating and running.” Virtually everyone stayed seated around the table and just continued to talk. It was reminiscent of my family upbringing, when after a meal we would sit together and just talk for a long time. The food was delicious but what the brothers fed to one another in those days of the convocation far surpassed that physical food.

I realize that the world in which we are living is complex and at times unsettling. I am also attentive to the challenges that we face as a Church. Still, I am very excited and hopeful as we move “Forward Together,” because not only do I believe in God’s divine providence, the presence of Jesus accompanying us and the grace of the Holy Spirit, but I also believe in our priests, each of whom is integral to our story and key to our future. I am honored to share this story and face this future with these dedicated and gifted me. Each of these men, in his own way, feeds me, gives me hope and reflects every day what it means to be one.

The psalmist is so right: “How good and how pleasant it is, when brothers dwell as one.”

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